In the nineteen-thirties, cars were still showing their horse and carriage roots. They weren’t much more than a simple ladder frame with a boxy body bolted on top. Long hoods hid engines where horses used to trot. Using proven aircraft design principles, Aircraft designer William Stout decided to rethink the automobile from the wheels up. Preceding from plan to metal, he created a fascinating collection of innovations on wheels he called the Stout Scarab. Having designed the iconic Ford Tri-Motor, the first all-metal, practical airliner, Stout applied similar thinking to his land-bound craft.
The Stout Scarab "one-box" design and spacious interior gives credence to the claim that it was the world's first minivan, but that was just the beginning of its innovations. Its unit body is most common for cars now, all but unheard of then. It had a four-wheel independent suspension when other cars bounced along on buggy-style leaf springs. Stout made the car's interior reconfigurable--all seats but the driver's could be moved to new positions. There was a small table for office work, dining, or conferences.
Working independently of Buckminster Fuller and his Dymaxion car, Stout came to many of the same conclusions. Both cars had blimp-shaped bodies with rear mounted Ford V-8 engines driving the rear wheels. Both utilized aircraft design principles. And both sold few copies due to their prohibitive cost. But Stout’s was by far more practical, and safer than Fuller’s.
Writing in Scientific American, Stout stated,"When we finally 'unhitch Old Dobbin' from the automobile, the driver will have infinitely better vision from all angles. The automobile will be lighter and more efficient and yet safer, the ride will be easier, and the body will be more roomy without sacrificing maneuverability."
Just nine Scarabs were built, with most going to wealthy members of the company's board. Its price was four times that of Chrysler's luxury Imperial during the bottom of the Great Depression, limiting the innovative streamliner’s sales to a very select few. Volkswagen's original rear-engined micro bus comes closest to the Scarab/Dymaxion idea of any production car since. Five Scarabs are known to exist, treasured museum pieces that amaze and delight onlookers to this very day.
Written by Jim Cherry